How, when and why you should use the second person point of view
But first, what is a point of view, or POV?
There are three basic points of view that define the type of narration used in literature and writing.
They are the first, second and third person.
In the first person POV, the narrator uses the pronoun, I or sometimes, We.
The second person uses the pronoun, You.
In the third person, multiple person pronouns are used. They are He, She, It and They.
The First Person
This point of view is most often used in autobiographies when the author uses the first person pronouns I, me, my and mine.
It can also be used for advice in self-help books but is generally seen as a little egotistical.
However, it can be used in fiction. Hamlet by William Shakespeare is a classic example.
“I have of late, — but wherefore I know not, — lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.”
The Second Person
Second person pronouns are generally you and your, and they speak directly to the reader.
It is quite rare for fiction to be written in the second person.
One often-cited example of writing in the second person is the 1984 book, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. You can see by these selected first lines of the book that it is an unusual style for fiction.
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. How did you get here? It was your friend Tad Allagash.
Your brain is rushing with Brazilian marching powder. You are talking to a girl with a shaved head. You want to meet the kind of girl who isn’t going to be here.
But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
Then there is Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings,” which is told from both a second and a third person point of view.
The most common use of writing in the second person is for self-help and advice books.
Lorrie Moore wrote a collection of short stories, Self-Help, which feature pieces written in the 2nd person.
When writing in the second person you are addressing the reader, and seemingly in real time.
The Third Person
Fiction generally uses the third person narrative voice. It is often referred to as third person omniscient narration. It means that the narrator is all-knowing. Third person pronouns include he, she, it and they.
It is usually written in the past, but it can use the present tense.
Using the same 3rd person POV, you can have unreliable narrators, who might be difficult to believe because of exaggeration, lying or a sorry state of mind.
The third person narrative is commonly the author speaking. However, a story can also be told from only one character voice.
In the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling uses the third person limited POV, which means that the story is told exclusively from the perspective of Harry and the character’s thoughts, which works to connect the reader and character.
An author can also tell a story from the view of multiple characters. A great visual example of this is The Narrator in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
He is a fictional character, apparently a criminologist, and appears regularly to introduce scenes and help the story unfold using the third person narrative about various characters in the story.
“Emotion: Agitation or disturbance of mind; vehement or excited mental state.” It is also a powerful and irrational master. And from what Magenta and Columbia eagerly viewed on their television monitor, there seemed little doubt that Janet was indeed… its slave.”
It is extremely rare that different points of view are used in a story. However, Italo Calvino mixes POVs in his book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
How, when and why to use the 2nd person point of view to your advantage
In fiction or a short story, the 2nd person POV is considered awkward and very difficult to use.
But in non-fiction, and particularly when you are giving advice, information, or asking a reader a question, it is the perfect POV to involve your reader.
Look at these two very simple examples.
I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables because I need vitamins.
You need to eat a lot of fruit and vegetables because your body needs vitamins.
How I choose an adventure holiday.
How you can choose your own adventure holiday
The change from first to second POV makes the second sentence much more likely to connect with the reader. You can almost imagine them nodding in agreement as they read.
If you are writing articles, blog posts, content storytelling or self-help and personal development ebooks, using the 2nd person perspective has huge benefits.
It helps you as a writer to connect directly with your readers’ thoughts and feelings.
The 2nd person point of view expert: Neil Patel
You have probably read many articles written by Neil Patel. He is a well-known marketing guru, but he is also a very fine writer.
I took one of his articles at random, The Ultimate Guide to Writing Blog Posts That Rank in Google’s Top 10.
It is a very long piece, but what is fascinating is how often he uses you and your in the 2nd person narrative.
Here is a short extract.
If you’re a content marketer, blogger or online business entrepreneur, you’re the CEO of your business. No matter what you actually sell – products or services – your primary responsibility is to solve your readers’ problems. Start by attracting attention with your post headlines to improve search engine rank. They have something that needs to be solved in their search query – solve it.
Better yet, you could find a web page that lists several sites or resources similar to your own blog post, but which contains broken links. That’s your opportunity to get your links there, in place of a broken one.
When you’re contacting someone for the first time, address the blogger or site owner by their name (preferably their first name). If you don’t know their names, a simple Google search will reveal their Twitter account or Facebook page. Or, you can visit the “about” page through their site content.
In the full article, he uses the word You, 587 times!
He often uses the first person to introduce a situation or topic. But then he quickly switches to the second person perspective to engage with his readers.
In every article you read by Patel, you always feel that he is talking to you directly.
It seems like only a subtle change. But if you look at your own articles or blog posts, which voice do you use the most?
If you see that you are using the first person too often, it is not difficult for you to do a little re-writing to change the voice from I and My, to You and Your.
Maybe you have written a self-help book. Is it selling well?
If your answer is um, not that great, perhaps you might want to do a quick scan read and see if your POV is a potential problem. Are you talking at your readers, or to your readers?
It might be a change that makes all the difference. You never know, do you?
The power of You and Your in a title
When you craft a title for an article or non-fiction book, do you think about your POV?
Let’s say your article or ebook is about overcoming shyness.
Which title do you think would be more powerful?
How To Overcome Shyness
My Way of Overcoming Shyness
How You Can Overcome Your Shyness
Just by adding You and Your, or You’re, your book titles will sound less formal and rigid.
You then have far more chance of attracting attention because you have personalised the title for the reader.
The 2nd person is a point of view that can be used to positive effect because your story is told for and about your reader.
In fiction, unless you really know what you are doing, it is probably best to avoid it. Stick with the third person and be safe.
But when you are writing your blog posts, content articles, advice ebooks or offering any form of technical writing or written guidance with useful information, always think about how you can use YOU to better engage your readers in your topic.